| May 16, 2017

Podcast

Podcast #304: The Lies of Manhood and How to Teach Young Men Its Truths

Football is often seen as an incubator of rough and wild masculinity. But one former NFL lineman, turned church minister, turned high school football coach, sees football as a platform to teach young men how to be both tough and tender. My guest today on the podcast spent a season with this sage coach and walked away having learned what it really means to be a man, as well as built a stronger relationship with his father. His name is Jeffrey Marx and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book is Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood.

Today on the show, Jeffrey talks about his relationship with retired NFL athlete and now minister and high school football coach Joe Ehrmann. Jeff begins by sharing what he learned from Joe and other NFL players about what it means to be a man during his stint as a ballboy for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s. He then shares how Joe went from a party animal to an inner-city minister who focused on helping young men. We then discuss what Joe sees as the lies of masculinity in the popular culture and how they need to be replaced with strategic masculinity. 

We end our conversation talking about how coaching high school football ties into Joe’s ministry to men and how Joe’s philosophy on masculinity helped Jeffrey draw closer to his father. 

Lots of great insights on this show, so be sure to take notes!

Show Highlights

  • The long career of Joe Ehrmann, from football star to coach
  • What Jeffrey Marx learned about manliness by being a Baltimore Colts ballboy
  • How the death of Joe’s brother affected his life
  • Why Joe focuses on young men in his inner city work
  • The 3 lies of false masculinity
  • The 2 tiers of true and strategic masculinity
  • How does Joe’s high school coaching career connect all these ideas?
  • The best context for teaching teenage boys the tenets of manhood
  • Why the head and the heart need to be connected in men
  • The weirdest thing Jeffrey has ever seen on a high school sports team
  • The origin and meaning of the word “coach”
  • How focusing on character also happens to create a good football team
  • How reporting on this story helped Jeffrey’s relationship with his own father

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

If you played football as a young man, you’re likely going to resonate with Season of Life. Even if you didn’t play, there’s a lot you can learn on how to mentor young men into mature masculinity from the life of Joe Ehrmann.

Connect With Jeffrey Marx

Jeffrey’s website

Jeffrey on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Football is often seen as an incubator of rough and wild masculinity, but one former NFL lineman turned church minister, turned high school football coach, sees football as a platform to teach young men how to be both tough and tender.

My guest today on the podcast has spent a season with the Indianapolis Colts and walked away having learned what it really means to be a man, as well as built a stronger relationship with his own father. His name is Jeffrey Marx and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book is Season Of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood.

Today on the show, Jeffrey talks about his relationship with retired NFL athlete and now minister to high school football coach named Joe Ehrmann. Jeff begins by sharing what he learned from Joe and other NFL players about what it means to be a man during his stint as a ballboy for the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s. He then shares how Joe went from being to a party animal to an inner city minister, who focused on helping young men. We then discuss what Joe sees as the lies of masculinity in the popular culture, and how they need to be replaced with what he calls strategic masculinity. We end our conversation talking about how coaching high school football ties into Joe’s ministry to men, how Joe’s philosophy on masculinity helped Jeffrey draw closer to his father.

Lots of great insights on this show, so be sure to take notes. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/seasonoflife.

Jeffrey Marx, welcome to the show.

Jeffrey Marx: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you wrote a book several years ago back in 2007, that I just came across. I don’t know how I stumbled across it, but I’m glad I did. It’s called Season of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood.

This book is about a lot of different things that hit close to home for a lot of men. But primarily follow a high school coach named Joe Ehrmann. He’s had a fast-knitting career before he became a football coach.

So before we get to his career as a high school football coach, can you tell us about his career with the Colts? The Balitmore Colts.

Jeffrey Marx: Sure, well back in the 1970s, Joe Ehrmann was a big-time football star. He was an all-American defensive lineman at Syracuse, first. Then he was a first-round draft pick with the Baltimore Colts, long before it moved away to Indianapolis. He did really well with the Colts. He ended up being the defensive tackle with that team and one of the real leaders of the team both on and off the field.

Joe played eight years with the Colts from 1973 to 1980. Then he had two more years in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, 81 and 82. So, he was a big-time player who really did a lot of things on the field, but also touched a lot of lives off the field.

Brett McKay: And your relationship with him began when you were a kid yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jeffrey Marx: Right. I had an incredible experience, unbelievably fortunate as a kid. Starting at the age of 11, I was a ballboy for the Baltimore Colts. So, during my summers I lived with, worked with, and traveled with a professional football team. That was an amazing experience as a young boy. I did that all the way up through my high school years and a couple years of college during the summers as well.

Joe Ehrmann was one of many guys who really impacted my young life. To this day, there’s really not a day goes by, even though I’m in my 50s now, where there isn’t something that happens that somehow draws me back to those childhood experiences. I never could have guessed then the way it would impact my life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you talk about in the book, hanging around these professional football players, you learned things about being a man that you didn’t learn from your dad, but you saw and experienced first-hand with these guys.

What were some of those things you learned from these pro-football players?

Jeffrey Marx: Absolutely, my dad an amazing man. A man who I always knew loved me, but I knew that through his actions, not through his words. He wasn’t very expressive. He was a stoic, he was a man whose emotions were tucked away, I would say. He kept his emotional thermometer stuck right in the middle. No highs, no lows.

As a boy, I never really saw a lot of those pieces from my dad. Things that I would later see from the Colts and experience, and realize that it was okay for a man to express his emotions. Both the excited highs and also the sad lows, from time to time. I saw grown men cry in the Colts locker room and at different times with some of their experiences in the NFL.

As a boy, I never knew that that was okay. You look up to those professional athletes so much. So, to see some of those things from them, I think really impacted me and my understanding of what it meant to be a man.

Brett McKay: You talk about Joe during his playing days. You know, he wasn’t too much of a party animal, but he liked to have a good time. He was kind of a huckster, a prankster on the team.

But he had an event in his life. His brother died and it completely changed him. How did the death of Joe’s brother … When did that happen in his career and how did that affect his life going forward?

Jeffrey Marx: Right. Well, Billy Ehrmann was Joe’s younger brother and really, best friend. So, that was a huge turning point in Joe’s life.

I would say that he was a party animal prior to that. Joe was a guy who, if you wanted to know where the team party was, or where they were going to play poker on on Wednesday nights, or where to get a cold beer after the game, or any of that stuff, Joe was really the go-to guy. So, he had a lot of fun during his early NFL days.

The big turning point for him was in 1978. That’s what his younger brother, Billy, died after a long battle with aplastic anemia. It changed everything for Joe. That’s when Joe really started searching for meaning in his life. Trying to understand what he had been fed for so many years about what it presently means to be a successful man in this world.

He did a lot of re-evaluation and ended up going into the ministry, through his lessons learned and also lessons taught. It really changed everything for him.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you talk a little bit about his ministry, because it was pretty unique.

Jeffrey Marx: Well, when Joe became a minister in Baltimore, he started in the inner city. He had a program called The Door. That was in a pretty tough neighborhood in Baltimore, where a lot of young people and a lot of families needed all kinds of help. That was was typical Joe. Joe was one of those guys that was always reaching out to pull others in.

As I mentioned briefly ago, I happened to be very fortunate to be one of those, starting as an 11 year old boy. So I knew and saw and felt what it meant when Joe got involved in your life. Later on, once he became a minister and was able to reach so many families in the inner city, that really changed a lot of lives for a lot of people.

Brett McKay: Then, another unique thing about his ministry is that he’s made a focus on reaching out to young men. Why have that focus?

Jeffrey Marx: Yeah, that became much later. That came on much later. Joe came to this conclusion working in the inner city and seeing and experiencing all those ills that impact so many. Whether it’s the issue of drugs, whether the issue of fatherlessness. So many other things going on, problems in the city, socioeconomic issues.

Joe came to realize this, that all of those other problems were really just a subset of the biggest problem of all. That is that we as a culture don’t do a very good job of teaching boys and men what is really means, what it really ought to mean to be a man in this culture … A man of substance and impact.

So, he started a program called Building Men For Others, which is all about tearing down what he calls the lies of false masculinity and then replacing with those and teaching them into young people’s lives. Replacing them with what he calls true masculinity, or strategic in the sense that … Strategic masculinity means that it’s intentional. You need to think it through. You need to decide for yourself how you’re going to define masculinity. Then you need to live into that definition.

Brett McKay: What are some of these false lies that Joe thinks are out there in our culture?

Jeffrey Marx: Joe has, in his program, he came up with three lies that he calls false masculinity.

The first is that athletic ability. That starts at a very young age. We learn that if we can play a little better basketball or football or baseball on the playground, then somehow we’re a little better than or a little more than the other boys. That’s fun, and that’s all good. We all want to be good athletes and enjoy those things, but quite honestly has nothing to do with later being a man of substance and impact.

Then you get a little older and you reach that second lie in Joe’s definition, sexual conquest. Not talking about healthy relationships. There’s nothing better in the world than a healthy relationship. This is what I would call the notch-in-the-belt mentality, where you’re really bringing girls, and later women, around you, not for anything that serves them, but for your own individual decision, gratification. That, too, becomes an absolute lie. If you’re going to define yourself by sexual conquest, that doesn’t make you a man. If anything, that makes you a user of other people.

Then you get a little older, and you reach that third piece, economic success. That’s what kind of car do you drive, what house do you live in, what’s your zip code. Issues revolving around power and privilege and prestige, your job title, and so many other things that come in to play. The way we too often view this world as adults. Again, I’m not suggesting that there’s something wrong with wanting and having good things in your life. That’s a beautiful thing, but there’s something terribly wrong if that’s how you’re going to measure yourself as a man.

So, Joe takes those three pieces, the athletic ability, the sexual conquest, economic success. He calls it from the ballfield, to the bedroom, to the billfold. He debunks all those things, and then he replaces those with his definition of strategic masculinity.

Brett McKay: And what is that definition of strategic masculinity?

Jeffrey Marx: In Joe’s view, there are only two categories.

The first is relationships. That’s the ability to love and to be loved. That’s the ability to look another man, or woman, or child in the eye and express to them your love, and then hear and see and feel that coming back as well. You want to get to the point that if I were to walk out of here today and get hit by a truck on the road, and I was on my deathbed tonight. If I was looking back over my life, I’d be able to ask myself certain questions that are all relationship-based. Questions such as, “What kind of husband was I?” What kind of father, what kind of son? What kind of brother, what kind of classmate, teammate, community member? All of these issues that revolve around relationships.

I want to know that I’m going to measure my life looking back on it, based on those things, not on things like how many home runs did I hit on the baseball team? How many hundred dollar bills did I put in my bank account? How many cars did I put in my garage. Those things would really be meaningless at a time like that. So that’s all about relationships.

Then the second piece is having a cause beyond yourself. Joe calls it a transcendent cause. That means it’s bigger than your own individual hopes, dreams and desires. It’s all about serving other people. Your cause can be large, it can be small. You can have a single cause, or multiple causes. But ultimately, if you’re on that same deathbed tonight, you want to know that somehow, you lived, you learned, you loved, and you left this place a little better than it was before you got here.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. So, he has his ministry, The Door. He also has his men’s ministry reaching out to young men. How does football connect with this? How did he end up coaching high school football on top of being a minister?

Jeffrey Marx: Well, it’s funny to think back on it now, but in 2001, when I reconnected with Joe after 18 years … 18 years had passed between the last time I had seen him as a professional football player and then reconnecting with him in Baltimore. I didn’t know that he was doing this either.  I had seen and heard little things about what he was doing in the inner city. I knew that he was responsible for building the first Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore, serving sick children and their families, a tribute to his brother Billy.

I knew a lot of those things, but I had no idea he was coaching high school football on the side. Joe explained to me that the only reason he was doing that … It wasn’t really that he cared a whole lot about football anymore. It was simply because he saw that as the perfect context in which to reach and teach teenage boys about these concepts that he had developed related to masculinity.

So, I would make the argument that sports in America today is the most powerful platform we have. If you want to reach and teach teenage boys important concepts such as these, what better way to do it than within the context of high school sports?

Brett McKay: So how does Joe go about doing that? What’s his technique of it in viewing these things to these young men, where they actually want to listen and apply these things that he’s telling them?

Jeffrey Marx: Well, Joe is coaching along with his best friend, Biff Poggi. Biff was the head coach, and Joe the defensive coordinator of a team called the Gilman Greyhounds in Baltimore.

One of the things that was so beautiful just to start with, was that all the boys would see and witness and understand and then ultimately want to emulate the type of relationship that Joe and Biff had. So they would see it right there before they even started learning about it from the lessons.

Joe and Biff had a whole program where they had a playbook that was unlike any other in high school football. Think about high school football. The most violent sport in America, football. Think about high school, where all you want to do as a teenage boy is impress other boys, and girls, of course. Here were the main concepts in their playbook for that high school football team: kindness, empathy, inclusion, justice, living a life of service to others, integrity, bringing all your talents, both on and off the field.

Overall, what they were doing was trying to teach those boys that really what we want to do as boys and men, and ultimately as human beings, any human being, is keep the head and the heart connected. Physically in our body, the head and heart, on average, are about 17 inches apart. But as boys and young men, we’re taught so early to separate those two. To keep them as far apart as we possibly can, and then sever that cord. We’re taught that we’re supposed to lead with the head and not with the heart. In the biggest picture, the broadest context, what Joe and Biff are teaching those boys to do is keep the head and the heart connected.

I’ll give you an example. The first day I showed up there, summer of 2001, to their first day of summer football practice, here’s the very first thing I saw on that football field. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve lived my whole life, in one way or another, around the world of sports. I saw a high school football coach … In this case it was Biff, the head coach, standing at one end of the field, and about 80 or 90 boys, junior varsity and varsity football players, sitting on the grass at that end zone at the end of the field. Biff was standing before them, about seven or eight assistant coaches standing behind Biff. The first thing Biff does is yell out to those boys, “What is our job?” They yelled back in unison, “To love us!” “What is your job?”, he yells to the boys. And they yell back, “To love each other.”

I thought that was about the weirdest thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t really understand what that was all about. But as I’ve spent more time there, I came to realize that signature exchange really represented everything that Joe and Biff were building those boys. Because they weren’t just building a team, they were building a community.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that. It reminded me of my high school football days. When I first started playing high school football, the coach I had … You could tell that his primary focus was developing young men into men. He taught these life skills. Then I remember we got another coach. You could tell his goal was, “Win football games.”

You could tell the difference. I preferred the first one, because I felt like I got more out of it. That’s what I remember the most. Like you, I think back upon those days with fondness. I still go back there to find lessons on how to be a man from what that head coach was trying to teach me as a 15 year old kid.

Jeffrey Marx: You touch on something so important there. You talk about the different kinds of coaches and how all these years later, that had stayed with you. But again, let’s run this thing out and understand the kinds of coaches that these two men really want to be, and now sharing this with people all over the country, that hopefully they’ve impacted and soon will impact so many other programs.

Let’s take that word “coach” for just a minute. In our culture today, we have so many different types of coaches, not just athletic coaches. We’ve got business coaches, we have life coaches, all kinds of coaches. Even the sports coaches, we see all different types. We see the screamers, we see the supportive typee, those who affirm. But let’s go back to that word “coach”.

The first use in the English language, “A horse-drawn carriage.” But it wasn’t just any type of carriage. It had a specific purpose. The purpose was to convey or transport a person of importance from where her or she is to where he or she wants to be, needs to be, or ought to be going. That’s 1500.

I would make the argument all these years later that what we ought to be expecting of, and in fact demanding of all sports coaches, is that they take our people of importance, our young people, from where they are to where they want to be, need to be, or ought to be going. Keeping in mind, that should have nothing to do with points on the scoreboard, titles, state championships or any of that stuff. That’s all about creating lives of substance and impact. That’s exactly the way these coaches want to approach it.

Brett McKay: This isn’t to say … Like sure, he had this primary focus of developing character in these young men. But this was a good football team, too. They did well.

Jeffrey Marx: They did really well. That’s what’s so interesting.

Joe and I have spent years on the road since this book first came out in late 2003. In 2004, we started doing a lot of work all over the country. One of the most amazing things was how certain questions were immediately asked. One of the first was, “This all sounds great, but can you still win?” A lot of people couldn’t see how you could possibly do all this touchy-feely life stuff within the context of high school football, and still win games.

They kind of start paying more attention when they realize that eight of nine years, Joe and Biff’s team was the champion in the toughest conference in the city of Baltimore. Four of those nine, the Gilman Greyhounds were undefeated and ranked number one in the entire state of Maryland.

So here’s the deal. Those Gilman Greyhounds, they’re going to light you up. Trust me. That whistle blows, they’ll light you up. But when it blows again because the play is over, they’ll also reach out a hand and help pick you up. So that’s what they’re instilling in those boys.

Let me tell you, those boys come together in ways … I have learned and had some of the same experiences you mentioned. I didn’t play high school football, I played high school basketball. I had a coach who was a screamer, and I had a coach who was an affirmer. Two different coaches. I can assure you that all these years later, the affirmer has had a lot bigger impact. He brought us together in ways that the screamer never could have. In fact, to this day, as a 54 year old man, one of my dear friends in this world is my high school coach who was the affirmer.

So, it’s all about relationships in the program that they’re teaching. Those relationships don’t only bring the team together where that team becomes a true community, and that community becomes true champions. It also impacts lives for many years to come.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love … There’s this moment in the book you describe where a parent is asking Biff at a scrimmage, “How’s the team going to do this year, Coach?” Biff says, “Oh, I won’t know for 20 years.”

Jeffrey Marx: Right. And that’s because he wants to wait and see what type of guys they’re going to be, what kind of citizens in their community. That’s how he’s going to measure it. He had a great line another day. Same type of idea, but he told those boys one day, “I expect greatness out of you. And the way we measure greatness, the only way we measure greatness, is the impact you make on the lives of others.”

So, you take those concepts and you put that over the span of 10, 15, 20 years. It’s my belief that these boys, now men, will be impacting their community in ways that no one on the outside looking in ever could’ve imagined, but in ways that Joe and Biff totally expect out of them.

Brett McKay: Have you done any follow-up of some of the players at Gilman, and how they’re doing now?

Jeffrey Marx: I have. It’s really been fun for me. They’re probably about five or six of those boys … And I still call them boys because when I did my research and my writing of this book of course, they were high school boys. But, that was 2001 and now we’re looking at them 16 years later.

They’re in their mid-30s, a good number of them. It’s really remarkable to see what some of them have done with their lives. That’s been a lot of fun for me. Not only as a writer of that book, but as someone who became friends with them and their families. To see some of them now coaching on their own … One is an assistant coach at the Naval Academy. There are several others who have gone on to coach in not necessarily big name schools, but in smaller communities. Just seeing the way generationally, they will now touch other lives is really pretty neat to see.

Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. Throughout the book you talk about your dad. At the end, you talked about how this season with the Gilman High School football team helped reconnect you with your father. How did that happen?

Jeffrey Marx: It happened in a way that was certainly not anticipated by me. In a way, I was kind of tricked. At first, I thought I was just going to see Joe for a day, see what he was doing up there in Baltimore. I was kind of interested after all those years, and because of our connection so much earlier, I wanted to see what he was doing.

The first trick, I guess, was that I kept going back for more once I realized what I was going on and how meaningful it was. I ended up spending the full season with them.

The other trick, I would say, was that I thought even once I was spending time there, I was just going to be an observer. But I actually became, unknowingly, a participant. Because I think it would be impossible to go through a whole season with a group like that, both the boys playing and the men coaching, without going through some self-evaluation of your own. I did that. I kept coming back to my relationship with my dad.

The more I thought about Joe and Biff, the way they were teaching about strategic masculinity, of course that led to me thinking a lot about all of my relationships, about my cause in this world. As I say, I kept coming back to my dad. We talked about him a few minutes ago, and how I always knew my dad loved me but he wasn’t the kind of guy who would expressed that when I was a boy, that’s for sure. The first time he told me he loved me, I was 24 years old. I remember it vividly to this day.

I always knew through his actions, but there were certain things that my dad could never say to me. Being the stoic, being the guy who shows emotions. So there were all kinds of things we could talk about as a father and a son, but there were also all kinds of things that went beyond the realm of all possibility to talk talk about.

At that time, in my early 40s, I wanted and needed more. I didn’t want my dad to leave this world, whenever that might be, and me look back and wonder what could’ve been in our relationship. So, at the end of that 2001 season, I’ll never forget it. It was Thanksgiving weekend. I lived in D.C. at that point. When I was spending so much time in Baltimore, I lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

My did still lived in New York, where we grew up. He knew I was coming up for Thanksgiving weekend, but he didn’t know what was coming with me. What was coming with me was a great desire to have some real intense conversation with him, unlike we had ever had before. We spent hours and hours that weekend, just the two of us sitting on the couch in his living room, talking about all this stuff. It was absolutely amazing to see the way he responded.

My dad’s 83 years old now. I’m so fortunate to still have him. He’s incredibly healthy, he enjoys his life so much. I just can’t even imagine what these years would’ve been like if we had never started that conversation in 2001. That’s a conversation that has been growing and growing ever since, and it’s been incredibly rich and meaningful to have that as part of our lives and our relationship.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I loved how you referenced in this book, questions to ask your father. I think a lot of men, they don’t really know their dads. They don’t really know anything about what they were like when they were kids, what were their dreams, what were their goals as young men, what did they think about becoming a dad. You don’t know that stuff and it’d be nice to know that stuff because you’re going through that stuff yourself.

Jeffrey Marx: Totally agree. I was so fortunate, again. It was one of these unexpected gifts. We were sitting in Joe’s office at his church. Back then, he was a pastor of a large church, about 4,000 members in Baltimore. We were sitting in his office one day, having one of these conversations related to his program, as I was learning more for the writing of this book. He took a phone call and I started looking at the books on his bookshelf this day, and I was so fortunate just to stumble across this book. When he was done on the phone, I asked him about it. He told me about it and how he had used it with his boys. He said, “Go ahead, take it. You might enjoy it, check it out.”

Well, I did. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I ended up using that as a blueprint for my own conversations with my dad. It was really incredible to see not only the way that it helped us along, but once I wrote about that in the book Season of Life, there were so many other families around America who I would get emails and calls. When I would go out for speaking engagements, one of the first things I would hear from people would be how they too, ended up using those questions and having similar conversations as a father and son. It took people in so many wonderful directions.

So, it was an incredible gift that Joe gave to me. Then I was able to share that with other people. So that’s been a pretty special part of this as well.

Brett McKay: Jeffrey, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your work and your book?

Jeffrey Marx: Well, there’s a book Season of Life and then I do a lot of work doing speaking engagements related to these topics. All of that information can be found at our website jeffreymarx.org. That’s just one solid word, Jeffrey, Marx, M-A-R-X like X-ray, .org.

And then to follow the journey, and I really came to see this as a journey, not only as a book anymore but all these years and all these experiences, I try to share that with folks in the Twitter account which is @jeffreymarx25. Jeffreymarx25.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jeffrey Marx, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jeffrey Marx: Tremendous! Thank you Brett! I enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Jeffrey Marx, he’s the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Season of Life. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about Jeffrey’s work at jeffreymarx.org. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/seasonoflife, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps out a lot.

As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: December 5, 2017

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